Unions: The Folks That Brought You the Weekend

  • Labor Law Poster

We are all better off because of unions and this is true even if you have never been represented by one.  A good example is the weekend.  The standard work week used to be 60 to 80 hours a week in the early 20th century.  Everyone, including children, were expected to work 10 or 12 hour days six days a week. Sunday was a day off only because you were expected to go to church.

The weekend did not come about because employers cared about their employees. Employers had to be forced, through laws and union contracts, to allow workers time for their families or some social life. The struggle for the 40 hour week took many years, and many people worked, sacrificed, and even died in the effort.

Many other commonly expected benefits are the result of unions setting the standard. Health insurance, sick leave, vacations, retirement plans, and coffee breaks are examples. These are now common for union and non-union employees.

Today, because of unions, we have laws governing work hours. But even with these protections the work week has been getting longer again. Pressures from employers are undermining the standard. In many workplaces you are not a “team player” if you don’t work extra hours. Cell phones, pagers, and email connect people to work during off hours. Employers are reclassifying jobs as “professional” to avoid paying overtime. The pressure to make more, get promoted, of even keep your job, creates a 24/7, work-first mentality that pressures people into working longer and harder.

It is no coincidence that as union membership has declined, employers ability to impose longer work hours is coming back. Without unions, workers have no voice in the workplace. They have little protection if they oppose company requirements. This pattern is also true for wages and other benefits. Unions reached a peak of 35% of the workforce  in the late 1960s. Since 1973 average worker wages have been stagnant adjusted for inflation. Benefits like retirement and health insurance have been dropped by many employers or the costs shifted to workers.

You can help by supporting your union. If you are not union connected, anyone can join Working America. Sponsored by the AFL-CIO, Working America gives all working people a voice and a way to to participate. Check it out at www.workingamerica.org.

All of us can support the right of workers to form unions and negotiate contracts with their employers. We can vote for candidates who support unions. We can reject the “divide-and-conquer” politics of union bashing.

TGIF. Have a good weekend.